Prime Minister Cameron’s “Southern Strategy” Wins (and Loses)

By William K. Black
Quito: May 8, 2015

Paul Krugman has a good column today entitled “Triumph of the Unthinking” about the Tory electoral triumph in the UK. Krugman makes three central points. First, the Tories and the UK media have created a myth about austerity that is utterly false – and poison to Labour while falsely flattering to the Conservatives. Second, rather than fight the myth by explaining why austerity in response to the Great Recession was an insane policy that gratuitously forced the UK back into a severe recession, Labour has embraced austerity. Krugman opines that Labour felt that public support for austerity was so strong that the party’s leadership felt it was impossible to do the right thing.

Third, Krugman notes that Obama also (eventually) embraced the language of austerity rather than explaining to the public why it was a self-destructive policy. Obama recently, in the same talk, without any understanding of the contradiction, criticized the consequences of EU austerity – insufficient demand — and threw Greece under the bus by demanding that it inflict even greater austerity and labor “reforms” that would slash employment and wages.

Ironically, the New York Times proved Krugman’s point about the media’s embrace of this Tory myth through a wondrously wacky article claiming that Labour was defeated because it abandoned Tony Blair’s disastrous “centrist” strategy of “winning” the financial regulatory “race to the bottom” and “shifted” to the left.

The vote was a stunning disappointment for the opposition Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband, who had shifted the party away from the more centrist strategy it pursued in the late 1990s and early 2000s under Tony Blair. Mr. Miliband stepped down on Friday, opening up a new debate over the party’s direction.

I made this point about Labour’s embrace of austerity before the election in a column at New Economic Perspectives (NEP). I made a related point in an interview with the Real News Network that explained why none of the (then) three leading parties was pushing to prosecute the banksters whose frauds created the City of London’s corrupt culture and drove its financial crisis.

Everyone knew going into the elections that the Lib-Dems (the Conservative Party’s very junior coalition partners) would suffer severe losses, but the reality was far worse than predicted. The BBC reports that Nick Clegg led the Lib-Dems to near extinction: “The Lib Dems ended up with just eight MPs, down from 57 in 2010.” Two of the leading Lib-Dem MPS that were defeated explained why to the BBC. (Clegg has resigned as party leader, but won re-election as an MP.)

“Both attributed their defeats to a combination of coalition and Conservative warnings about the threat of a Labour/Scottish National Party administration….”

It is that last clause that has the sting in the tail. Voters who had supported the Lib-Dem switched and voted for the Conservatives because the Conservative’s “warn[ed] about the threat” of the Scots becoming part of a coalition government in the UK. The Conservatives, months before in the context of defeating a vote on independence for Scotland, had professed to love the Scots and to have embraced them as kinsmen in history’s greatest “union.” Now, the dread Scots were the bogeyman used by the Conservatives to stamp out the Lib-Dems. Or as Boris Johnson, the Conservative apologist-in-chief for the City of London’s corrupt banking culture put it.

He compared Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, whose popularity has plummeted, to a slug that gets squashed in the garden. “You do feel a spasm when any creature reaches the end of its mortal span at your hand or foot,’’ Mr. Johnson said. “I have trodden on many slugs in my life. There’s a terrible pop if you do it in bare feet.’’

Recall that Johnson was referring to the leader of his coalition partner. One of the reasons that the Lib-Dems were crushed is that even their nominal allies viewed them with contempt.

The Conservatives did such a good job demonizing the Scots in large part because Ed Miliband, Labour’s now resigned leader, joined the Conservatives in demonizing the Scots. Every vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP) was a de facto vote for Labour because a Labour-SNP coalition was the only chance Labour had of coming to power in this election. Miliband could have spent the Party’s time and money trying to win the contested seats outside Scotland and attack the rampant bashing of Scots as lazy ingrates dependent on a dole from the UK. Instead, he chose to run fiercely against the SNP – and ended up winning one seat in the Commons from Scotland. Miliband’s alliance with the Tories against the Scots and the SNP enraged many Scots.

Labour = “Red Tories”

The New York Times ran an article today on the electoral results in Scotland featuring the election of the youngest MP in three centuries, the SNP’s Mhairi Black (no relation as far as I know). The article begins with her rage when Labour members taunted her after the defeat of the referendum in favor of independence for Scotland. The reaction of the people of Scotland to the abuse was not to get simply get mad, but to change politics.

Since the day after the referendum the S.N.P. has quadrupled its membership, to nearly 110,000. Many of these new supporters used to vote for Labour but say they no longer trust a party perceived to have betrayed its working-class roots.

David Smith, a 52-year-old security guard, is one of those new S.N.P. supporters. Labour, he said, had just become “red Tories,” little different than the Conservative Party.

“None of the Fun Bits”

Labour never reacted positively to stop the Scot’s increasing embrace of the SNP. Instead, it vilified the SNP. Labour has too many safe seats to commit complete political suicide, but its formerly safe seats in Scotland became political graveyards for many senior Labour leaders.

Even Edinburgh, home of Adam Smith and David Hume, which voted 61 percent against independence, elected four S.N.P. lawmakers.

Douglas Alexander, the Labour member who was ousted by Ms. Black in Paisley, had represented the area in Parliament since 1997. Five years ago, he won the seat with 59.6 percent of the vote. As recently as January, his was considered a safe seat.

Then the polls started turning. In recent weeks, the shift had become palpable. As one former Labour member of Parliament here put it to The Economist recently: “It’s like the last days of Rome. Without sex. Or wine. In fact, with none of the fun bits.”

Even after Labour’s repudiation by the voters, Miliband insisted on misstating the nature of his failures. The NYT article that claimed that Labour lost because it “shifted” from a “centrist” position to the left (when it actually move to an even more extreme and economically illiterate position to the right on austerity issues) quotes Miliband’s explanation of Labour’s loss.

“We haven’t made the gains that we wanted in England and Wales,” he said, “and in Scotland we have seen a surge of nationalism overwhelm our party.”

As I have shown, Scottish nationalism was the least of Labour’s problems in Scotland. The abuse of Scots, something that has gone on for centuries, is common in England and became acute and chronic in response to the referendum and to Cameron’s election strategy of demonizing the Scots.

Scots also tend to be progressives, and they were disgusted by Labour’s leadership becoming “Red Tories.” This was a continuation of Tony Blair and “New Labour’s” embrace of the neoliberal economic dogmas that led to the corrupt culture of the City of London and economic disaster. Labour’s architect of its economically illiterate embrace of austerity was defeated in his MP contest.

In another humiliating blow for Labour, Ed Balls, who speaks for the party on economic issues and is one of its most influential figures, lost his seat of Morley and Outwood to the Conservatives.

When the electorate is offered a choice between a Tory and a Red Tory it tends to elect the genuine Tory instead of the imitation. The same NYT article noted, with apparent approval and neither analysis nor irony, that Prime Minister David Cameron’s election strategy was to splinter the “union” through demonizing the Scots as threatening to “splinter” “the nation.”

The campaign had centered primarily on domestic issues, including the budget austerity imposed by the Conservatives and funding for the National Health Service, but Mr. Cameron had also played up fears that a Labour government, reliant on support from the Scottish nationalists, would drive the country leftward and risk the nation being splintered.

The Brits claim to be the masters of irony, so I find the lack of understanding the irony of splintering the nation in order to avoid splintering the nation quite wondrous.

A Brief Response to a Reader of My Prior Column

My prior column on the upcoming election was a light piece on the theme: if Americans think our elections are crazy, wait until they read about the UK elections. I began with the example of the UKIP candidate for MP who was given the boot by UKIP because he talked about the fact that he would personally assassinate his Tory opponent should he ever become prime minister. His Tory opponent’s capital offense was being of South Asian descent. One of our readers was kind enough to write a response in which he said I generally liked my work, but that my column was the written equivalent of this threat to murder a man for the “crime” of his ancestry. The reader also said that the SNP was as racist as UKIP. Both of those points are self-refuting. The reader also points out that the SNP’s policies are contrary to MMT. They are, and I oppose them.

As an American I am, of course, biased in favor of independence from the English. I have never met an American who wishes that we had not insisted on and fought for our independence. But I take no position on independence for Scotland. If a majority of Scots do not wish to restore their sovereignty they will not be condemned by me.


I write to emphasize the lunacy of the parties opposed to the Tories demonizing the Scots as an election strategy – and the failure of the media to condemn Cameron for his divisive version of (in U.S. terms) “the Southern strategy.” There is a long, and current, history of demonization of the Celtic people in the UK. Only weeks ago, three very fancy and wealthy Brits from the financial sector initiated separate diatribes in my presence about the defective nature of the Scots. When you point out and criticize this prejudice it does not, contrary to the reader’s assertion, prove that you are prejudiced against Brits.

Remember, Cameron – the nation’s actual head of state – believed that prejudice against the Scots was sufficiently widespread and strong in the south that a campaign strategy premised on the need to turn back the “threat” that the Scots would actually have a voice in helping to determine policy in the “union” was the optimal means for the Tories to take control of the Commons. Cameron proved correct. That says a great deal that is worrisome not simply about Cameron, but also too large a segment of his constituents. Economists should understand “revealed biases.”

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